First Computer

(Technology history until 1984 by Ray Gaskins)

It all began in the spring of '68 when a call went out to B&G to send some men to help unload a truck parked in front of Johns Auditorium. A small crowd gathered as the men wrestled the huge crates into the basement. " What's in those crates." someone was heard to say,"pianos?"

"Heck no," Gerry Engel replied, "an IBM computer. But we won't be uncrating it today. We have to wait until the IBM engineer arrives tomorrow."

This was about the extent of the excitement that greeted the arrival of the College's first computer. The 67/68 college catalog, published in the summer of 1968 could manage only five lines in describing the new computer facility which was, for the first few months of its campus life, located in the basement of Johns Auditorium. The February 2, 1968 issue of the Tiger described the acquisition of the new computer in a single paragraph on page four.

The first record of a computer course offered by the college appears in the 1965/66 catalog, two years before the computer arrived. This course, simply titled Computer Programing, was first taught by Gus Franke using the FORTRAN IV language in 66/67. The first class consisted of five students, including Bob Deacle '69 who was immediately hired upon graduation to run the computer. How do you teach a programming course when you don't have a computer? Students would punch up their programs by hand and give them to Gus Franke who would take them over to Ashland and run them on Randolph-Macon's IBM 1800 computer. (Yes, they had a computer before we did.) One thing is for sure, you had to go over your program very carefully in those days because you didn't get very many runs.

Several things changed after the IBM 1130 arrived. For one thing the number of computer course offerings was increased from on to two and then to six. And now almost half of the students taking the courses were young women because Longwood didn't yet have a computer. This was all before my time, mind you. I didn't arrive until 1970, but that same IBM 1130 computer was still here and women were still flocking to our computer courses. It was a good machine, too good, perhaps. If you looked hard enough, there always seemed to be a way to get just a little more mileage out of it. Some called it the most cost effective machine IBM ever built. By the early 70's there were more than 5000 of these units world-wide and talk about software if it could be written on the 1130, it had been, several times.

In case you don't know the difference between an IBM 1130 and a Wang 320 calculator (Yes, we had one of those, too), perhaps the following will help. The 1130 was an early third generation computer that was introduced at about the same time as the IBM 360 (1965). It was a single user batch machine with card input, which meant that you had to stand in line with a deck of punched cards to run your program. It had a single platter hard disk with enough storage for one million characters, a printer capable of printing 80 lines per minute, and card read/punch that could read 300 cards or punch 120 cards per minute. There is a beautiful color picture of the 1130 on page 16 of the 1970 Kaleidoscope . This picture was taken after the 1130 was moved from the basement of Johns to what was the John Brooks Fuqua Computing center in Bagby Hall.

Gerry Engel and Bob Deacle pretty much ran the computer operation during those early years (1967-72). They developed a Student Information System, (SIS), which was used by the registrar. Registration in those days was a big affair, requiring most of the faculty and administration to get together down in Gammon Gym for a couple of nights to hand out course cards to students. These course cards were then batched together and read by SIS. SIS consisted of about 75 programs and was so complex that it would often "bomb out" in the middle of a run for no apparent reason. In 1971 Engel went away to get his doctorate but, instead of returning, he became head of computing at VIMS.

Perhaps Hampden-Sydney's most important contribution to computing during the early years was made by Bob Deacle when he successfully implemented the SNOBOL3 language on the 1130. This implementation was subsequently made available to COMMON, which distributed it, free of charge, to any 1130 user in the USA who requested it. Deacle was hired away form Hampden Sydney in 1973. Several years later, a friend of mine at Winthrop College, knowing of my interest in SNOBOL3, sent me a version which he said had been recently developed in France. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this French version was simply our SNOBOL3 translated from English into French.

Tom Gee was brought in from Virginia Tech on my recommendation as a replacement for Bob Deacle. Tom was a very capable fellow and getting him was too good to be true literally. Through an oversight on our part he was never given a contract to sign. Thus, early in 1974, when he got a better offer, he was free to leave- and he did. It was up to me to step in and take over and I did. One of the first things I did was to totally rewrite SIS during the period 1974-75 and the new version, SIS II, was used until 1980.

Starting in about 1974, various efforts were made from time to time by various groups to replace the 1130. When Longwood decided to acquire an IBM System/3, there were those who thought it would be a good idea for us to do likewise. I opposed this because the System/3 would not have been good for our academic program the 1130 was older, but it was a better overall machine. Everything from going remote to UVA or VPI to sticking a bunch of PDP 11/23s around campus was studied and rejected over the years either because it was a bad idea or because the money to do it could not be found.

In 1976 I began a two-year leave of absence, leaving one of my students, Lee Brown '76, in charge. Lee was the right man for the job and executed it so well that Dean Mayo was prompted to say to me: "gee, you're not indispensable after all." I'm not sure how that was meant, but, having trained Lee, I took it as a compliment. Lee left in 1977 to attend graduate school at UNC/CH. His replacement, Frank Kluttz, was hired away from us shortly after I returned from my leave in 1978, so once again I found myself having to take over. During this time, a student, Paul Seay '79, was contracted by the Development Office to write an alumni system. the system was so large that the only way he could make it work was to use two disks - all the programs were on one disk and the data files were on another. Since we only had one disk drive, you can imagine the fancy footwork required to run the system. But it did work, even though it drove the 1130 almost beyond it's limits.

By 1977, IBM had dropped all software support for the 1130. This simply meant that there would be no further releases of system software. We could live with that. But what we were now facing, and could not live with, was IBM eventually dropping hardware support. Between 1977 and 1979, the quality of service seemed to be going down at about the same rate that the cost of service was rising. IBM seemed to be sending us a message get rid of the 1130. Thus, with our backs to the wall, Dan Poteet (the Dean), Merrill Espigh (the Registrar), and I teamed up in 1979 to make what turned out to be a successful effort to replace the 1130. The first thing we did was to hire a staff (Karen Harris as machine operator and Jim Gamble as programmer/analyst), so that, by the time the 1130's replacement arrived in June of 1980, we were able to handle the enormous conversion problem of moving 500,000 cards worth of programs and data from the IBM 1130 to the Perkin-Elmer 3240. By mid 1981, we were essentially off the 1130 but it was not officially retired from service until December. The only thing it was used for after 1981 was running SNOBOL3 programs for Computer Science and to occasionally warm up the lab on a cold day.

We tried unsuccessfully to find the 1130 a good home during most of 1982 and finally resorted to selling it for its scrap value ($200) during the summer of 1983 just over fifteen years after it first arrived on campus.

NB: The above history first appeared in the 1984 Kaleidscope on pages 64 & 65.